In my latest essay for the Interface: a journal for and about social movements, I explain how the artistic expression generated around Aurat March, a radical appropriation of the #metoo movement, is a challenge for mainstream tribalism in Pakistan. In it I dissect the anatomy of some activist posters, describe what they may mean for Pakistan’s changing political context and ultimately, hopefully what they tells us about Muslim women politics elsewhere in the Arab world.
The essay was published as a series on global struggles around COVID 19 pandemic. It is free to access.
It was republished on The Left Berlin, a forum for progressive voices not usually covered in mainstream media.
My own March poster was picked by Diva Magazine Pakistan for their Instagram account. Checkout my earlier posts to learn more.
Women & men from all strata of Pakistani life gathered to commemorate International Women’s Day with the much-awaited Aurat March, holding placards with important messages, sharing poetry with deep meaning & celebrating the blessing of womanhood. Aurat means woman, & March means rallying, translated from Urdu.
I’m researching on campaign messages of mainstream opposition groups in Pakistan as part of my thesis. This ‘evangelical’ placard was an outcome of what I have learned. It has two elements; the text, which in English roughly means, ‘shame & honour isn’t determined by your clothes, it’s in the way you think’. In Roman Urdu, ‘sharam aur haya kapron mein nahi, soch mein soch mein’. Such framing irks mainstream sensibilities of morality by highlighting the double standards for men & women in Muslim Pakistan; the costume, a prayer cap & a garment, popularly associated with Muslim men attire in Asia, counters the assumption that Marchers are ‘immoral women’.
The unprecedented success of Aurat March is in effectively translating universal values of equality & human rights in Pakistan’s cultural lexicon. It moves these conversations from Parliament to the Kitchen. Much like the global #metoo movement.
Pakistan has a glorious history of women activism. Women have challenged military dictators & discriminatory laws through street demonstrations.
Learn more about the Aurat March 2020 here. Also, see it through my eyes here.
The coronavirus storm has hit many parts of the world and generated tremendous impacts on people’s lives. In crises like this, people seek information to assess the situation and to protect themselves and their loved ones. However, there are concerns about the credibility and neutrality of information circulated in the virtual space. The Center for Media & Communication Research at the Hong Kong Baptist University invited three speakers to share their observation with participants in a virtual format on April 3, 2020. Here I share excerpts and resources from the discussion useful for journalists, health professionals, fact checkers, educators, organisations engaged in civil/information literacy and interested public at large.
Leanne Chang, Director of the Centre for Media and Communication Research, Hong Kong Baptist University
Summer Chen, Chief Editor of Taiwan FactCheck Center
Masato Kajimoto, Director of Annie Lab; Assistant Professor of Practice, Journalism and Media Studies Centre, University of Hong Kong
Rose Luqiu, Assistant Professor, Department of Journalism, Hong Kong Baptist University
We are certified with the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) for the second year now.
After covering the Taiwan Presidential Elections we are fighting against Coronavirus misinformation.
Last December we became an independent foundation. We cooperate with popular social media in Taiwan which includes, Facebook, Google Claim Review, Line, Yahoo.
We have a large database of fact checks on COVID 19. We have already debunked 110 myths.
Battleline in Taiwan:
1- interview experts, scientists & doctors, 2- support from Science Media Center Taiwan (Academic support is important to build our own knowledge gap on the virus), 3- fact-checking Central Epidemic Command Center (since we are independent from government we do not just report Taiwan government suggestions).
Battleline around the globe:
1- The IFCN comprises of 65 fact-checking organisations from 45 countries. They have collected more than 1500 fact checks under the umbrella of CoronaVirusAlliance. See their Poynter database below:
Misinformation timeline in Taiwan (what we have debunked so far):
Jan (first case in Taiwan) – Remedies, Cures, Measures, Virus character.
Feb: Mostly news stories, conspiracies mixed with science papers.
March: Taiwan government is losing control (debunked almost 10 ‘facts’ about this topic). We did digital literacy campaign for the public to help identify this kind of information.
March – now: Virus is from US, or Italy not Wuhan (probably China propaganda).
March middle: Italy thanks China (also propaganda by China).
March middle-end: Lockdown policies. US is losing control (misinformation regarding this subject, 9 fact checks).
Current misinformation: #Malicious message “go stock pile supplies”, #Remedies #Cures.
Interesting academic ideas/topics she recommends for research/stories:
Study on health misinformation about COVID-19. Specially, reports claiming to quote celebrities, relatives, other influencers.
China’s propaganda; corona virus is not from Wuhan but US or Italy. Italians appreciate China; research on how these misinformation networks are built, how they spread etc.
If we compare misinformation about Hong Kong protest and COVID-19 we can find similar patterns of misinformation, conducted by China. One pattern: Spokesman + state-backed media + other materials spread on social media.
Comparison of misinformation on COVID 19, specially on social media, to examine how some is debunked while other is not.
Researching on misinformation about COVID 19 being spread also from other political actors such as Falun Gong (a movement banned in China).
I have some observations based on my experience but not based on specific research:
Knowledge gap amoung us (ordinary citizens, the news media, media experts). We all have some knowledge but the gap means misinformation spreads rapidly.
Relatedly, “legit” traditional media not just “bad media organisations” that are amplifying fears and misleading claims. Something not discussed enough.
Misinformation is a problem, fact-checking helps but this is as much a public health communication problem where we must address the larger information ecosystem on COVID 19.
– Experts and journalist often ignore misinformation. They do not see news value in digging through it, since they are able to see through it quickly dismiss it. In other words, experts that are normally critical thinkers, may not see how the ordinary audience is reacting and sharing misinformation.
For instance; warm water can kill coronavirus. Has become a huge international phenomenon. A popular remedy being reported on social media in Canada, Philippines, India, Cambodia, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Spain, Venezuela.
A small claim that has universal appeal with potentially dangerous consequences for management of COVID 19.
Journalist think this misinformation is harmless. But if you are in fact-checking field, you realize how many people actually believe in it do not take other precautions. They don’t wash hands. They go out freely. Then they are telling their friends on social media how things are all ok.
We are in talks with Google as well to take into account our database. Hopefully you would not have to visit our database and can identify information organically.
Role of journalists
This map was going strong in many parts of the world. It came from a university in the UK. I forgot the name. It was used along with a research paper to illustrate how people travel around the world by airplane.
But many people interpreted it as how people have travelled the world from Wuhan before the city got shut down in January. News organizations in many countries carried the story.
– There are five types of COVID-19 misinformation in my view. I think many fact-checkers would agree:
Government responses (stats manipulation, lockdown, etc.)
– Fact-checking ‘future’ is not possible; example, a story on how China will close down its factories that make toilet paper.
– If you are a journalist reporting a story, not fact-checking, but reporting, an instance of people panic buying toilet paper is now a story.
We detected early on Annie Lab that this rumour on toilet paper is going viral in Hong Kong. I work from home now with my students since university is closed so when my students initially pointed this out, I ignored them thinking who will believe such a rumour. But people were posting videos of empty shelf, people queing, etc. These were reshared online and covered by traditional media.
As one result, news organisations report on toilet paper shortage actually pushed people into panic buying since they believed in the shortage. The huge spike in demand obviously effected the supply side in Hong Kong. The story that was rather groundless became true. News organisations are partly to blame.
COVID 19 episode tells us that news presentation style is important. It operates at a psychological level.
What to do about it?
Time to think about responsible pandemic news coverage. We have an industry guideline for suicide reporting in many countries already. Why not a similar guidline for health communication/pandemic reporting? Currently, this is a wild west.
Finally, reporting, fact-checking on epidemic is not easy when even experts sometimes disagree on subjects. For example, should we encourage or discourage aircon use? Fact checking can be misleading too.
I recommend these must read articles for journalists:
Useful comments during Q&A:
Masato says that’s there is no way to fight misinformation through fact-checking. Purpose of fact-checking is not to correct everyone who has read misinformation. People move on from one rumor to another. Many rumors are created all the time.
Fact checking does help to straighten the historical record.
But it is better understood as a digital literacy program. By fact-checking we are showing the public how to handle information. If news consumers are doing fact-checks on the demand side, then this problem can be improved.
While it’s news media’s responsibility it’s the public’s responsibility also.
Summer says that many of the claims that are received at the Taiwan Fact-Check Center are by the general public. So it’s important to bring the public into confidence. When we fact check, we are not focused on conclusion. Our articles are detailed with interviews, counterclaims etc. We want to show the public the process of reading our articles and the content itself. This will also help ordinary people to learn fact-checking.
We want people to see fact checking as a social program. A social movement.
How can we separate fact from opinion?
Masato says I give my students statements to verify. For instance, Japanese Food is better than Chinese Food – is it an opinion or fact? If this is a fact than based on what data? Is it the medical literature, scientific literature, what is the definition of Japanese Food? Is fried rice Chinese or Japanese. I give my students such exercises.
Summer says fact checking can also backfire when people upon learning about a false information may still choose to believe it. They may think for instance a fact checked story is against values of Taiwan.
Summer also says that news reports on the pandemic may also make more sense in one context compared to another. Such as the limited use of face mask in Texas, United States. Perhaps open spaces mean people are not wearing masks. But in Taiwan such advise would be nonsense. These reports have more to do with field of journalism rather than fact-checking.
This six-week course developed by the University of Hong Kong and State University of New York will help learners develop their critical thinking skills to enable them to better identify reliable information in news reports: https://www.coursera.org/learn/news-literacy
Links to the cloud files on the original discussion:
It is not in my nature to be morose about what lies ahead. So in a typical fashion my New Year’s Eve was spent among good company. Both of friends and hooch. Now, that the fire works (and the fire arms), the tributes and the visceral high of celebrating together with millions around the world start to fade, things that made last year so difficult begin to dawn.
Indeed, 2016 has been rather poignant for me. The PhD program ‘came of age’, meaning that the course requirement and comprehensive exams were completed, a prospectus was negotiated with an advisory committee and field work was conducted in Karachi and Islamabad. Also, around summer time I attended a themed poster session @ the ICA in Japan.
It was a ridiculously packed agenda. One that raised the bar, set new standards and pushed me to stop complaining and get shit done. To put no-so-subtly.
The costs are high ladies and gentleman of stumbling along new pastures.
But the rewards are… oh so satisfying.
I’m surprised how clear I am about my plans for 2017 at a moment when many are celebrating the uncertainty or bemoaning what has passed. Much credit is due, among other things, to the rigorous requirements of the program that has instilled a measure of discipline. To be sure, the plan requires considerable rework. But I understand that is just part of the game.
Key learning here is that some form of structure no matter how rudimentary is crucial. For me the myth of having no rules as the driving engine was busted in 2016. Working in academia as with everything else worth pursuing requires a certain mindset, not least the ability to work alone for extended periods. A certain discipline which takes time and training. Rules make things simpler.
So in celebrating New Year’s Eve in my home town after four years I say goodbye to uncertainty, lack of discipline or an era of half-baked resolutions. I welcome 2017 and many more to come, hopefully, with a new found appreciation for responsibility and structure in life.
Prologue: In the past five years I’ve transitioned through various levels of financial independence as I have studied and worked abroad and lived as a single male. Interestingly, childhood lessons continue to stick with me and seem to follow me around as I make my yearly trips back home. These lessons manifest most profoundly during those so-called ‘wedding seasons’ (a misnomer I might add for every season seems to be a wedding season in Karachi). Where the most contentious issue often boils down to marriage with an ‘outsider’ a.k.a a gory or gweilo.
On weddings and familial ties
In this post I will highlight two popular arguments desi-families make to dissuade marriages with foreigners. I want to understand whether these are sound arguments or personal choices disguised as such. I hope readers will see that this reasoning can be generalised to many other factors, particular those based around age, sect, baradari (community), culture (favoured in Pakistan) that influence decisions to tie the knot.
I neither condone nor condemn a particular choice. I quite respect choice and right of opinion what I do not approve of is when people collate matters of choice with their supposedly reasonable arguments. Because when we mix arguments with value systems, we tend to defy rationalisation; we refuse to change our arguments even when underlying assumptions change. We mistakenly assume that our argument is sound when actually we are imposing our belief and tailoring the arguments to fit those beliefs. For instance,
1- When we say that familial ties trump all other:
Most of us born-raised in the subcontinent are taught to view family relations through the assumption that material benefits of maintaining strong extended familial ties inherently trump all other ties. Through this assumption we argue that marrying a Pakistani is more beneficial then a non-Pakistani since same nationality makes it easier to find mutually beneficial relationship when two families come together.
However, when this assumption is challenged; like when one family is more upwardly mobile or there is mistrust between the two or any other reason, it becomes logical, even necessary to modify our argument. Logical people maintain and strengthen ties with those who they trust or see some form of a benefit. Not necessarily monetary, many times it is an emotional benefit when a couple can sustain each other through thick and thin. Now it may be that we find many such trust worthy people in extended families but is that necessarily so? Many times we have such amazing relationships at various levels with our friends, coworkers, bosses, subordinates, mentors etc. Why should then when it comes to choosing potential partners must we restrict to certain families, sects or nationalities?
2- Social cost of marrying a foreigner will always be higher – Loag kya kahiengay? (what will people think?)
Social cost is a qualitatively complex phenomenon so its difficult to reduce it simply to defying ones societal norms. Over here I’ll just take one aspect of the cost; the communal shamming or loss of our gayrat (honour) when knots are tied outside established beliefs. The assumption here is that family decision/wisdom is superior to individual life choices since the former is more accordance with Muslim, Pakistani or Asian values.
This assumption is already problematic on two levels; first, is what your family decides for you always more Islamic than your own decisions? Now I am positive that no sane parent or saviour of family traditions will ever admit to this with a straight face. So if we understand this is a flawed assumption why do we take shamming so seriously?
Secondly, what do we mean by Islamic, Pakistani and Asian values to begin with? Are they written somewhere to be followed in letter or spirit or a combination of both? And who decides such combinations and on what authority? This is an old issue. What we can say with certainty about value judgements is that they continuously evolve parallel to socio-economic changes in society, among other things.
So no matter what the arguments we will (and rightly so) cherry pick those that best serve our interests. So why is it so difficult to call a spade a spade and blame socio-economic conditions rather than ‘values’ for marriage decisions?
Resources are better managed in an extended family structure
In a similar vein, a partner with the same passport as yourself is assumed by default to bring greater accountability.
True, accountability could be higher but is this always the case? Yes having the blessings of a rich father in-law who is childhood friends with your father is good, but does this fact alone guarantee that shenanigans in business and work will not occur? I think at best it merely hints it. Hard work, mutual respect, planning and sacrifice still play a crucial role. And this applies to relationships and work ethics generally and is certainly not restricted to familial ties. Even business decisions that centre around leveraging patronage networks are not made by default. They are based on practical and strategic concerns of the parties involve.
A messy middle-ground
Some men of noble origins, faced with such dilemmas took a bold step. They reconciled with the contradictions in arguments of their elders by getting conveniently married with foreigners for better economic and future prospects. At the same time they conveniently also ‘kept’ local wives. One to fulfil their duty and one to fulfil other appetites.
It is interesting how making personal marriage choices is not socially acceptable but what is acceptable though, albeit in hushed tones, is to ruin the life of a women or keep them dependent on the husbands good grace. And in my experience this applies to many patriarchal societies.
My point is not to argue for the irrelevance of family structure or the supremacy of one model of marriage over other. Partner selection, just like many other important decisions in life, is based on individual circumstances and contexts. Indeed most marriages every where in the world, including Pakistan, are based on strategic decisions.
So why do we continue to adhere with this facade of rule of thumbs?
Happy new year everyone! There have been many firsts in 2015 – the first time I traveled the most; to amazing new places in Dubai, Thailand, Denmark, Germany and Netherlands – the first time I got a visa three hours before the flight – the first time I went to an academic conference – and a few others not agreeable with the topic of this post. I hope 2016 will bring many more exciting firsts to all of us. Needless to say my life has moved forward at a pace so breathtaking that I often struggle to hold on to all those intricate details and make sense of them. But as with all issues in life its useful to break them down to manageable parts.
This post will be on my journey to Denmark particularly attending the Communication & Democracy section 2015 at the European Communication Research and Education (ECREA) conference.
A bit on the journey itself first. I have been working on a paper that aims to explore the role of Dharnas (‘curated sit-ins’ as I like to call them) in citizen mobilisations in Pakistan. So I was very excited when it got accepted at ECREA. Coincidentally, the visa process to visit Copenhagen Business School, where the conference was to be held, clashed with myriad other administrative and academic duties. As a result I cut the deadlines to travel rather close. In fact, I wasn’t sure if I’d even go until five hours before the flight! Thankfully, the 14 hour flight was just enough to prepare a presentation, shave and look presentable. Although I wouldn’t recommend working under dim lights of the economy class for writing anything important.
Any way, I landed in Copenhagen at first light and went straight to the conference with my luggage where I presented with a 10% battery left on the Mac. I did ok for a first, received some comments but the real reward however was showing this to a very ‘non-Pakistani’ audience:
The format for this intimate conference over the next two days was typical. Plenary sessions, usually taken over by superstar scholars in the field followed by refreshments before the 200-300 modest gathering breaks down in to a number of themes. These themes formed the meat of the proceedings. The subject matters varied widely – some of the papers I will mention shortly – although conforming to the general theme and loosely bound to European events. For me a fascinating aspect was the program, based on which one could switch between halls to listen to any topic or presenter they fancied. So there was a constant shuffling of people taking notes between presentations. But the two topics I enjoyed listening the most were:
Activism: an ambiguous word for an ambivalent age
A keynote speech by Prof. Goubin Yang based on his upcoming book. He talked about how the definition of the word activism has increasingly shed its more revolutionary color and how that corresponds to activism increasingly being practiced as passive resistance in contemporary times. Which also means that activism has become rather institutionalised where, no one is ever pro-government or pro-corporation any more.
Commercial Nationalism, Advertising and the Crisis: Political Agency and Resistance
A paper by Dr. Eleftheria Lekakis on how advertising attempts to mobilise political agency through the platform of a brand and the reception, in terms of acceptance or resistance, that this holds. She took the case study of Johnnie Walker Whiskey’s global campaign to demonstrate how commercial enterprises frame national identity.
My interest in them stemmed from the wave of activism and vigour leading up to May 2013 and the opposition marches later on. And of course the brand Pakistan in local advertising has been ‘done to death’ but never seems to die.
There were also ample opportunities to network in between presentations, refreshment and lunch breaks, a cocktail reception for participants and also one could simply go out for dinner later. On one such moments I chanced upon a Professor from CityU, someone who I have been meaning to speak to. He had done a Twitter Analysis of May 2013 General Elections with findings I was keen to debate. (If you guys can’t access it let me know).
In all it was a refreshing affair. To present your ideas, meet scholars with similar interests, get a feel for the latest trends and explore a new city. Coming from Hong Kong, Copenhagen seemed to me rather quite. You could be walking around the city centre and run in to the parliament building without realising. Very peaceful and scenic. Nightlife is great in that it made me wonder whether the wild drunk hoards I usually encountered in England are an English phenomenon. Europe is certainly different as my time in Berlin and an evening in Amsterdam showed. But lets save that for another time.
I have been living in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Tong district for about an year now and have grown rather fond of this gentrified district. There is something here for everyone; if you are an early riser it would hard to miss the municipal parks teeming with the elderly doing some interpretation of Tai Chi, during rush hours people of all demographics conceivable traversing through the efficient MTR (metro) on their way to schools, financial district near Causeway Bay or the retail hubs in Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok. The night life is vibrant and secure while the people are courteous, educated and civilised.
But much closer to my home town of Karachi, approximately an hour and 45 minutes away by plane, is another great trade and finance hub in the region, namely Dubai. I always had a very negative association of Dubai; not least due to its strong ties with the oil industries and the political turmoil that the Arab world seems to be perpetually engulfed in. I recall a time in my career when I seriously contemplated traveling here for work but realised that the Communication Industry there is limited in scope. The Arab arrogance is notorious also and those preoccupied with Marx such as myself finds it appalling. So when I did get opportunities to travel I chose Turkey and the United Kingdom instead, in a bid to distance myself from the Pakistan-Arab nexus. (Its ironic though that years later in Hong Kong, an American colleague would exclaim “Hey Ayaz, you are my first Arab muslim male friend!”) So much for my Pakistani identity.
Despite my erratic career trajectory and refusal to settle for a tourist trap my first visit to Dubai was quite experiential. Beyond the desert safaris and fancy hotels, I found my friends working their comfortable and well paid. There is also a high sense of security, just what foreigners are looking for. The city is after all a success story of modernity in the Arab world, as it transitions its unique proposition from oil to global trade joining the ranks of multicultural port cities (states). Thus standing out as a model for lesser developed Arab countries to aspire towards. As a British protectorate between 1822-1971, Dubai shares a Commonwealth heritage similar to Karachi and Hong Kong. I comprehend now how little I actually know about this other side of the Middle East. A far cry from framed news stories on CNN and BBC.
But now that I have witnessed the mana unique to Dubai would I consider living their? An year ago it would be a straight off no! I mean the human resource development in Hong Kong, supported by soft power initiatives of China, right now parallels the most advanced countries. It has after all a GDP per capita equal to that of United States. It is obvious that Dubai still has a long way to go in terms of top notch health, affordable education and diversification of selling proposition. But these considerations are in the abstract and I find that my question is not relevant any more. People adapt and make their lives wherever they live and work. That is an adage. I suppose it was a combination of cultural phobias and divergent career paths which held me clear off these castles in the sand. I wonder how my personality and life would have shaped though had I visited much earlier. As I have sung praises of Turkey, United Kingdom and Hong Kong with a progressively loud pomp so too I suspect have the Dubai tour come to pass.
There is a class of upwardly mobile people all around the world riding the wave of post-modernity as it sweeps away everyone willing to cash it, leaving behind everything that hesitates in its wake. There are many American and British emigrants in Hong Kong who have relinquished their nationalities to avoid taxes and other assorted purposes. So is the large diaspora of Pakistan, Philippines, India and Bangladesh found all over the world that we are too familiar with. As we meet new people in our professions we find similar life stories and narratives. The other Middle East is one such story and there is much still we can learn from it.
It is a claim that you alone are special, you alone care and you alone have the right. The image is not intended as an attack on any religious belief. It has a symbolic and satirical purpose.
A few days ago I was forwarded an article written by Manal A. Khan on how our ambitious career plans in college appear on hindsight upon touching 30. I found it comforting that people my age share the paradox of going through education systems that hammer down the notion of zealous personal ambitions and save-the-world attitude while, upon hitting some semblance of career stability, realise that it’s the ‘process’ that really matters. In this piece I will establish a thread from her general message in to pursuing PhD studies.
PhD studies or work in the knowledge economy in general is like work in any other industry. I chose this for my commentary because the eccentric admission process, the high self-motivation and work flexibility are supposedly the hallmarks of independent research work, similar to some values mentioned by Khan. However one year down, I have emphatically realised how political research work really is. By political I don’t just mean ideological but many outside factors that shape knowledge creation.
Take research area as an example. I was very selective about choosing literature for my work on the Pakistani media industry. As an emerging academic of the global south, it is imperative that I borrow extensively from theoretical frameworks that are grounded on developing countries. This means working under supervisors with similar focus or at least expertise on developing countries. However, rarely do new PhD students get supervisors of their choice in this increasingly saturated and bureaucratised industry. As a result their frameworks and indeed research area may be directed by their supervisors.
Timeliness and location plays another important role. As a resource constrained actor, how do you study a community thousands of miles away? There are limitations to my data collection on Pakistan; the personal/guanxi culture, elite research paradigm and the expense of traveling to and fro from Hong Kong for instance. This effects what meaningful questions I can ask and expect to answer. In the beginning I was envious of my Chinese colleagues for whom it is much easier to collect data on China. I do realise now how incorporating Chinese literature adds value to my work even though it comes at the expense of foregoing data on some communities in Karachi. Lack of access much?
Finally, and this is my favourite; our personal lives do not stop while we are embarking on ambitious plans to ‘save the world’. Many PhD students are in the middle of their careers thus juggling a balance between social security (immigration), marriage and/or proposals, kids, parents, jobs and their research is a truism. This effects the choices mentioned above besides adding another dimension to how a researchers decision making is influenced.
A PhD graduate told me once that when he first started the program he had big plans ‘to move mountains’ and creating vital knowledge that would change lives of ‘ordinary people’. In reality the program simply trains you to carry out independent research work. That is it. It takes decades for scholars to refine their methods, develop a following and master an area to make some meaningful contribution. And, since research work usually is far ahead of its time it takes years for its practical impact to trickle down. The only thing within your control is perseverance for your work and strategic decision making to interact with outside influences. That is all you can reasonably expect from yourself. Setting a goal like ‘changing the world’ is as narcissistic a view as ‘becoming famous’. It is a claim that you alone are special, you alone care and you alone have the right. I agree with Khan that great people didn’t set ‘changing the world’ in their bucket lists. They just continued to make good use of their strengths.
The Pakistani film industry is experiencing a come back riding the tide of globalisation and media liberalisation. It is the contention of this essay that one important impact of changing political times and indeed turmoil has been on Pakistani culture. A notion ably depicted by the changing narratives, production values and identity crisis in Pakistani films. It is a truism that the country since independence in 1947, has been characterised by hybrid forms and an unresolved struggle between authoritarian legacies and democratic aspirations (Malik, 1996), thus the changes in cinema can be taken as a cultural manifestation of this inner conflict. In order to illustrate this the essay will hi light two very popular works of director Shoaib Mansoor; one a television drama Alpha Bravo Charlie (1998) based on the lives of officers in the Pakistan army and two, a post-911 highest grossing Pakistani film, Khuda Ke Liye (2007) (In the name of God). Since both films were supported by the Inter-Services Intelligence Public Relations (ISPR), the propaganda arm of the military intelligence, the author intends to further two lines of arguments; firstly that the authoritarian establishment has used cinema as a medium to legitimise cultural hegemony. Secondly, the author explains how the increasing sophistication of the second film requires a poststructural analysis of the film produced in a nation state reacting to global changes.
The praetorianism of the Pakistan armed forces is a well established phenomenon analysed as it’s political economy by Ayesha Siddia (2007) in Military Inc. Inside Pakistan’s Political Economy. In the book she gives a detailed empirical account and consequence of ‘Milbus’ the definition of which is;
military capital used for the personal benefit of the military fraternity, especially the officer cadre, which is not recorded as part of the defence budget or does not follow the normal accountability procedures of the state, making it an independent genre of capital. It is either controlled by the military or under its implicit or explicit patronage. (Siddiqa 2007, p.4)
In her study she makes the assessment that Pakistan army’s increase in economic activities has been directly proportional to its political power and the widespread securitisation of the society. Indeed its two major welfare organisations are also the two biggest companies in the country. It has major assets and investments (monopolies in certain cases) in fertiliser, cement, banking, highway construction and ports. These ‘new land barons’ have preferential decision making power which is detrimental to free-market economics. This has made the Pakistani army among the ten largest armed forces in the world and its officer cadres and retired forces personnel the most powerful fraternity in the country. Moreover, other societal elites have become coalition partners with the Milbus forming what is referred to in the media as the Establishment. Why the Pakistan security state has morphed in to such an existence is beyond the scope of this paper. What is important however are the cultural manifestations of a state dominated by a militarised ruling oligarchy since it tries to shape the state according to a blueprint that suits the interests of a handful of people. And the power to continue shaping the ‘modes of production’ is even more pronounced in postcolonial states like Pakistan. Although the military establishment comprising mainly of the Army and the bureaucracy have been firmly entrenched in politics, economics and foreign policy it wasn’t until the the 1980’s that it came out as an all encompassing financially independent institution of the Pakistani state. This was due to the Soviet-Afghan war where the state became a crucial partner in the United States Cold War. What followed was an influx of American and Saudi weapons and money in to Pakistan with the ultimate aim to train the mujahideen in their guerrilla war. The country became as Tariq Ali has said a ‘U.S Satrapy’. But it was the acquiring of nuclear weapons capabilities in 1998 and the resulting adventures in Kargil in 1999; a move to take over occupied Indian Kashmir by force, that really set the conditions for certain cultural products to take shape.
Alpha Bravo Charlie and Gramsci
The series, Alpha Bravo Charlie was aired on 8pm prime time on Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV), the dominant state station, between May to July 1998. It quickly became the most watched drama serial at the time, not least because of lack of choices for the audience. It was a story of the lives of three young and ambitious recruits in the Pakistan army. Faraz Ahmed a handsome intelligent son of a rich land owning Punjab (largest province of Pakistan) family who after graduating is not assigned to active combat duty but is relegated to a dignified three-star General rank as he opens up a charity school from his resources. Kashif Kirmani is an active duty son of a two-star General. Brave, bold and with a high sense of humour he is promoted to the rank of Captain. Upon graduation he is assigned to a post on the Siachen glacier, one of the highest battlegrounds in the world and an area of strategic importance in the Kashmir dispute. It was also one of the battlegrounds during the Kargil conflict. As the series builds up, Kirmani takes a dangerous mission and destroys the Indian enemy but is wounded during the skirmish. He spends three days in the snow before finally getting rescued but tragically has his limbs amputed as a result of injuries. For his valour he is given an honourable discharge which he refuses and continues to serve in the army. Lastly, Gulsher Khan is a shy, mild mannered Captain and a son of a petty officer in the army. Occupying a rank higher than his poor father and clearly coming from a modest upbringing Khan’s story is that of the coming of age of a young man on a steady upward social mobility. Khan is sent to Bosnia on a U.N peacekeeping mission where he launches rescue operations to protect Bosnian Muslims held by Serbian forces. There he starts to command the respect of the locals and one Bosnian woman proposes to marry him which he respectfully refuses being already a married man. As the series unfolds Khan is captured in a Serbian ambush and gets killed while attempting to escape.
Lets first establish the notion that cultural hegemony has been an important aspect of state narrative of Pakistan’s history and ideology as a home for Muslims of the Subcontinent. The architects of Pakistan, most of which belonged to the landed gentry in the patronage of the British Raj realised that religious sentiments could become the only political slogan that could unite what Partha Chatterjee has termed the ‘political society’ in subaltern literature, under one banner in the fight for independence. This nation-state narrative has been controlled by the elites of the Pakistani society since then. Thus the revision of history books, discouragement of alternate national discourse in the media, indirect control of the Urdu newspapers by intelligence agencies due to its widespread readership and heavy censorship imposed on English newspapers (the preferred newspapers of upper-middleclass), suppression of provincial nationalist voices and minorities has becomes a necessary outcome of the ideological apparatus. Viewed form this light, the Establishment is a physical and metaphorical representation of what the societal elites have come to be understood in Pakistan, its most powerful player being the army. Siddiqa’s work as a military strategist has been of empirically grounding the exact nature of the expanding politico-economic reach of the Establishment. Her work sets the ground for a critique of an ideological state apparatus and indeed for this TV series as an important propaganda tool deployed as a ‘soft power’ initiative to legitimise states ventures in Kashmir. It is hard to dismiss the timeliness of broadcast as mere coincidence. Antonio Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony is a good starting point to conceptualise this:
One can say that not only the philosophy of praxis (Marxism) not exclude ethico-political history, but that indeed in its most recent stage of development, it consists precisely in asserting the moment of hegemony as essential to its conception of the state and to the accrediting of the cultural fact, of cultural activity of a cultural front as necessary alongside the merely economic and political ones.
The incursions in Siachen and its possible repercussions, a critical analysis of the perceived threat to Islam in Bosnia, the pervasiveness of the military in general gets lost within the static of a beautiful portrayal and slice of life depicted in the TV series. Instead, we have a ‘good will’ TV series with a superb production value and cannot help put invest ourselves emotionally in the characters; Faraz for his charitable appeal, Kashif for his patriotism and tragic loss, Khan for his ‘nice-guys-finish-last’ aura. The death of Khan in the final episode is particularly unsettling as it portrays him as a poor victim caught between events outside his control. He really becomes a martyr, a saint and ultimately symbolises his institution. We must venerate him, we must absolve him for any sins he might have committed. With its firm grip over any and all forms of media broadcast and distribution it became that much easier for the state to promote this cultural product. Since only four television channels existed in the country, all state owned, before 2002 and since internet was barely present the series faced zero threats from competing television programs or critical reviews from the civil society.
It is really the liberalisation of the Pakistani media industry after 1999 following, but not limited to, what the then Minister of Information Javed Jabbar has attributed as “counter(ing) increasing Indian propaganda”1 which demonstrates for us the continuity of this cultural hegemony. But very soon we realise that cultural hegemony is no longer an accurate term of the functioning of the ideological state apparatus and I will explain why in a bit. Here I would like to bring to attention two significant events relevant to our discussion. Firstly, ‘liberalisation’ here means not just of the media industry but the liberal market policies adopted by the dictatorship of President General Pervez Musharraf2 which included privatisation, opening of Pakistan economy for international investment and of course unprecedented investment in the telecommunication, news media industry. The economy managed by a cadre of experts in a highly centralized bureaucracy did indeed experience rampant growth within the first few years of military rule and achieved some modicum of stability. It is my contention that this period marks Pakistan’s formal entry (if ever there was such a thing) in to globalisation and postmodernity. Secondly, the September 11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of the U.S in Afghanistan had widespread repercussions for the Pakistani establishment; it now found itself forced to dismantle the same mujahideen network, founded to fight the Soviets, by the same allies that had funded it. The same mujahideen network that was now labelled in the U.S media as a terrorist network. This resulted in a massive dissonance within not only the Establishment but the rest of the society; in the 80’s the narrative of the mujahideen (transliterated here as a ‘religious freedom fighter’) went well with the Pakistani nation-state identity i.e. a state for the muslims of the Subcontinent and thus appealed to the popular sentiments of the subaltern. Ultimately this combination resulted in the adoption of a puritanical Islamic thought since it served as a convenient method for the Establishment to set in motion an ideological state apparatus. Indeed, the period in the 80’s is colloquially known as Islamization of Pakistan. Now however in participating in the ‘War on Terror’ and the various financial opportunities it provided the ideological state apparatus found itself in need of a recalibration. President General Musharraf then attempted to introduce his ‘Enlightened Moderation’ policy and drew many parallels of Pakistan with Turkey. However, this time around the ideological state apparatus did not work as ‘effectively’ due to creeping globalisation and mediatization3 of the society. By effectively I mean that this conceptualisation of cultural hegemony is inadequate. In a sense, I want to argue that globalisation has brought with it an increasing salience of postmodern/poststructural theories as a lens to look at some aspects of Pakistani society. Which brings us to our second film.
Khuda Ke Liye (In the name of God)
The plot follows the lives of a family of upper-middle class Pakistanis across three countries. A handsome duo, Mansoor and Sarmad are brothers who are part of a rising musical band in Lahore, Pakistan. Sarmad becomes increasingly influenced by the rhetoric of a prominent local muslim cleric who had earlier played an active role in the Afghan War and is now running an insurgency against the Americans in Afghanistan. He starts sporting a beard, drops out of the band, starts attending religious sermons and even pressures his free-spirited family to also follow his new lifestyle. Mansoor, not deterred by the inner conflict of his brother, travels to Chicago to pursue studies in music. He adjusts well with the diverse community of students and is celebrated as a talented musician. He also falls in love with a girl called Janie who quits alcohol for him and they eventually get married. Meanwhile in England, Mary/Mariam is a young Pakistani girl born and raised in Britain whose first generation progressive albeit hypocritical father brings her to Pakistan on a pretext and forcefully marries her off in a village. The story then unfolds as the world witnesses 9/11. Mansoor is taken in custody without trial by the U.S intelligence agencies and is tortured to Insanity. Sarmad reluctantly travels to Afghanistan to fight a ‘holy war’ and returns traumatised. While Mary, now rescued by the Pakistan Army under orders from the British government takes her father to court. The court scene is the essence of the film where an argument unfolds and where another religious cleric explains how a particular brand of Islam is being exploited to instigate hatred while the message of tranquility and peace is getting lost in the clutter.
The film was released to widespread critical appreciation and fame in 2007, squarely in the middle of military operations being conducted against the by now belligerent and dangerous Islamic militancy in north west of Pakistan. It quickly became the highest grossing film in Pakistani cinema which is a feat that must be emphasised; a cast of popular television stars, script by acclaimed director Shoaib Mansoor, promotion by Geo Network (a byproduct of media liberalisation), shooting done on location and many other firsts, were a testament to the high production value. Most importantly many Pakistanis were indeed proud of a film that resonated with their identity crisis and moreover, its positive reception around the world was viewed as an empathetic acknowledgment of this identity crisis and marginalization. The film however does seem to be an anomaly since the cinema industry in Pakistan had all but vanished, due to unfavourable economic policies and Islamization by the time of its release. Also many Bollywood veterans have been concerned about the films actual market value if left on its own in a South Asian market; the film performed average at the Indian box office where an audience is used to grandiose, item-numbers, big stars, spontaneous dancing and idealistic notions of love. Finally, the film was aired for free on Geo Television, which is now the most watched television after PTV, which raises doubts regarding profit motives behind its production; most independent and international Pakistani film directors do not release their films in the fledgling Pakistani market.
A new framework of hegemony?
Did the film work if it had a political purpose? I would argue that the film itself is a political message. By tackling issues of gender discrimination as in the case of Mary, issues of identity crisis experienced by upwardly mobile Pakistani families and the ideological clash between certain sects of Islam the film successfully hi lights the symptoms of societal fissures in a young nation state. But because this political message is limited to this humanist projection it will never appeal to our critical senses as it falls just short of explicating possible causes for societal fissures, gender discrimination and ideological conflicts. Although in one sense, if we look at it through the ideological state of Gramsci, this does represent progress because an overt categorisation of a ‘root-of-evil’ and hence propaganda, as depicted in Alpha Bravo Charlie, is absent. However I would argue that precisely because of this nuanced approach to sensitive issues, the film hints at the inevitability of such societal fissures. In other words by taking the cause out of the equation the film absolves the embedded power structures which otherwise may be revealed as the cause of this inevitability. I should not be too harsh on the director though after all this film represents an important cultural milestone in Pakistani history, riding though on the back of mediatization, and having an almost emancipatory effect on the Pakistani consciousness. However one can’t help but reflect on the complete involvement of Pakistani armed forces in every sphere of the security state (see discussion of Siddiqa earlier) which also happens to be a transitioning democracy and is perhaps giving new forms of socio-political and economic structures that haven’t been conceptualized yet. Perhaps the term Establishment as it was understood 20 years ago does not hold currency any more. It is no longer strictly an elitist super structure, with a rural population at its base; there is now a middle class that now stands at 28% many members of which are connected to varying degrees with the Establishment. I realize this is a rather reductionist viewpoint and has been mentioned only for illustrative purposes. This is a similar concern as that of Spivak when she talks about catachresis. The point is that there is a core which pulls the society proper towards it with a powerful force. Cultural products like Khuda Ke Liye do not represent Islamic moderation or for that matter radicalization, they exist to serve a purpose in the changing nature of what Siddiqa now refers as a ‘hybrid-theocratic state’, as and when it deems necessary.
1. Intermedia, ‘Pakistan Media Comes of Age Despite Rising Violence’, Annual State of Pakistan Media Report 2006-2007.
2. Following international outrage for adventures in Kargil the civil-military relationship in the country became increasingly hostile and finally resulted in a soft coup d’etat. The constitution was suspended and the Prime Minister and chief of the ruling party Nawaz Sharif was sent to exile. It is interesting to note that many ordinary Pakistanis living in Pakistan have only recently been made aware of the details of this skirmish.
3. Definition of mediatization by Krotz (2009, p. 24) “we, in consequence, should understand the social and cultural reality, and thus each individual social and cultural phenomenon, as also depending on the media. This is what we refer to as mediatized… mediatization thus is a meta-process…and one akin to globalization or commercialisation.”
A lesson in critical thinking that I am taught as a potential PhD candidate is to always make an opinion knowing my unique biases. Now this may seem a matter of fact notion but its unbelievable how people take things for granted, at least I have and probably will continue to do so. For instance, its common for me to greet someone by saying ‘Hi’ followed by the conventional ‘How are you’. Now this rather dull sometimes even annoying salutation is very widely used among the people of various nationalities I’ve had the pleasure to chat with, but among many Hong Kong locals it is not customary. In fact, Hong Kongers find this a personal question to be answered frankly only after the preliminary small talk is over. Can you imagine thinking of how-are-you’s like that?
It gets funnier, in Hong Kong people greet you by asking if you have eaten yet. Yes, there are some combinations for instance they will add lunch or dinner depending on the time of the day but the emphasis is always on food. If you are doubtful about the strangeness of this, imagine yourself in an elevator with a scrawny looking old guy at night as you leave the office. The guy gives you a grin and asks ‘Hello, have you had dinner yet?’ – excuse me? Did you just ask me out for dinner!? I don’t know you man! Alright I may be exaggerating for effect but living in Karachi or even London, nobody ever asked me if I had eaten right of the bat unless they really meant it. Although I must say it’s a different affair if the hot receptionist in the building is asking – it’s an elating feeling until you realise she neither cares if you have eaten nor is interested in dating you. Hong Kongers feel equally perplexed if you ask them ‘How-are-you’ although its strangeness is some what diluted, after all this is a former British colony in East Asia.
It is important to appreciate our differences and the nuances since that gives us a wider perspective and helps us make better choices. For me, knowing that I was brought up in a traditional muslim family in Karachi makes me appreciate the subtleties of a community living in a sometimes violent and mismanaged society. So I am always careful how I phrase ‘patronage’ or ‘connections’ or baradari, which in the West is looked upon unanimously as undermining meritocracy. Not all baradari is bad right? After all in the US people have replaced the term with the ubiquitous ‘references’ and in China they give it an entirely new meaning, Guanxi. But being self-aware of this bias also makes me realise its potential for abuse which otherwise I would have overlooked in the name of ‘getting-business-done-in-Pakistan’; it is no coincidence that developed countries have significantly less corruption than developing ones.
I am in no way implying that any one paradigm or school of thought is correct but the point here is simply to remember your eccentricities. To know why you believe in what you do, to know why you are likely to say something and to know why you recommend a certain course of action. This ontological bearing is not just about having a genuine conversation with others but also about being truthful to your self. As Stuart Hall writes – common sense is the biggest ideology of all.
Biases are great, they gives us character. But know that you have them and always admit them. Always.